‘Into the Arms and Womb of God, (Almost)’’

Posted: May 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Into the Arms and Womb of God, (Almost)’’

This last week has seen us run into a number of Lectionary events that should be mentioned today. For New Zealand Methodists we had and have Covenant Sunday or Aldersgate Sunday and for followers of the Three-year Lectionary it is Ascension Sunday. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the theologian/storyteller we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories. Ascension Sunday for many is a one-day Season. A Season which uses a heap of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament” to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson (Robinson 1967:76). So, for Three-year types we now ask what we are to make of the Ascension story in 2020?

Bruce Epperly reminds us that there is every possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’ (like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005).

While these ideas may not be absolutely accurate as literalism is a later development Greek and Roman cosmology would suggest that this is how they usually made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world today. So, the Ascension story is a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology.

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story.

We now question these so-called Western concepts of cosmology because story and poetry and imagination and image are believed to be as if not more important.

It is here that we begin our exploration of the text.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many of us will hear today we will begin by being quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Nor is it about a past moment in time, or about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming.

It is a story about our calling as Christians to heal and transform the world. Thisworld.
To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. To follow the Way! Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images. It is here that my theology of ‘The Almost’ comes into play and offers a Way that recognizes a sort of purpose in all things including the cosmos yet resists the need to define that which should remain Mystery. It also recognizes that language, despite our utter dependence upon it, is never quite enough.

What follows is an attempt to talk about this Mystery in another way. John D Caputo, a Catholic Philosopher theologian I think provides a way of do this. He uses ‘perhaps as the alternative name of God that gives us a new less literal, more dynamic name for God He says that the name of God is the name of an insistent call or solicitation that is visited upon the world, and whether God comes to exist depends upon whether we resist or assist this insistence. The insistence of God means that God insists upon existing. If we say that God’s essence lies in God’s insistence, we mean that while metaphysics turns on the distinction between essence and existence, what Caputo is calling here a “poetics” of the “perhaps” and what I call a poetics and theology of ‘almost’ turns on the distinction between insistence and existence. God is an insistent claim or provocation, while the business of existence is up to us—existence here meaning response or responding, assuming responsibility to convert what is being called for in the name of God into a deed.

So, where metaphysics theorizes the distinction between of essence and existence, a poetics describes the “chiasm,” the “intertwining,” of God’s insistence with our existence. In a chiasm, each depends upon the other, neither one without the other. God needs us to be God, and we need God to be human. The insistence of God needs us for strength, even as we draw strength from God’s weakness. God’s insistence needs our existence to make any difference. Our existence needs God’s insistence in order to have a difference to make. God comes to exist in our response; our deeds constitute the “effects” the name of God has in the world. But we should be very careful not to attach any metaphysical baggage to such talk or confuse ourselves with God. A theology of the event is not supposed to end up in pantheism or reinventing “panentheism,” which is a fetching idea and very inviting, but in the end a bit too far-fetched, still more metaphysics.

Two other people who have attempted the task of new images and concepts are Shirley Murray and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan. Both are contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents. We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as her contemporary hymns are often included in our liturgies. But Richard’s work is new to me as it might be to others. One of his songs, “Ground and Source of All That Is“, has these image based words (three verses only):

Ground and source of all that is,

one that anchors all our roots,
Being of all ways and forms,
deepest home and final truth.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Lover of ten thousand names,
holy presence all have known,
Beauty ever welcoming,
Mystery to stir the soul. 
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Nature by whose laws we live,
author of our DNA,
All compelling call to life,
drawing one and all the same.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you… 

(Originally from Upper Room)

Another who offers creative work is Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation to us all is to consider the feminine image of God.
Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways. In one of her many reflections she offers this:

The God of history,
The God of the Bible.
is One who carries us in Her arms
after carrying us in Her womb,
breastfeeds us,
nurtures us,
teaches us how to walk,
teaches us how to soar upward
just as the eagle teaches its young
to stretch their wings and fly,

makes fruitful,
brings to birth,
clothes the lilies of the field,
clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade,
clothes you and me
with skin and flesh
and a whole new level of meaning
with the putting on of Christ…

(Winter 1987:20).

These offerings of ‘Miriam Therese Winter’ provide a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God but in reality, they not very new ways, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations, and sadly was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. So, thinking theologically, which the biblical stories of the Ascension requires us to do, means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past!  (Sallie McFague). But in the ‘orthodox’ world of certainty, belief and literalism this can be dangerous stuff. Rejection of ‘Good News’ in favour of control and single truth was and still is far too easy, not because it was or is good, or bad, but because it was and is new!

So here we are at a level two Covid-19 driven event, on the verge of what promises to be a new or changed life which after all, is the purpose of Easter Season and so, maybe we might imagine this time as the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… Born in the image of God the ‘Almost’; Living creative creatures born in doubt, uncertainty and in the vulnerability of human reality and yet always that which is yet to be always with potential and purpose. Pilgrims living the questions and exploring the adventure of being human, ‘on the Jesus Way’ The Way being an ‘Almost’ Way; a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered. He gave his life to what it meant to be human in his time, on the front line of healing, exorcising and political and economic exclusion and ultimately death as in living life to the fullest.

Faith in God is as Caputo suggests; where God; the ‘Almost’ is not a safe harbour but rather a risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an unkept promise, (almost, a yet to be.) where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We do not have to believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We do not need to say God “exists,” but rather that God calls — God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. A theology of ‘Almost’ Amen

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967.
Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman SongResources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.


  1. David Kelly says:

    Is it still worth picking up that Robinson book?

  2. revdougnz says:

    Always good to see the evolution of thinking.

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